Mernda primary school in outer suburban Melbourne

ABC News published a long article on Tuesday looking at how family life in the booming centre of Melbourne compares to the sprawling fringes (see City vs sprawl: A tale of two Melbournes). The story devotes 2,300 words and 19 photographs to comparing the wellbeing of one family living in a Southbank high-rise with one family living on a new estate in outer suburban Mernda.

The city centre or a growth area is a relevant choice for some households but, despite its scale, the ABC’s effort at illuminating the issue is unconvincing. For starters, it’s shallow to extrapolate from a sample of just two households to draw broader conclusions about the relative merits of sprawl versus city living. I know it’s standard practice in the mainstream media to try to “humanise” stories by starting with a profile of a “real” person, but the practice is fraught because it inevitably frames the story around the circumstances of the featured “talent”. For example, an outer suburb like Mernda will invariably look bad if the story starts by highlighting the plight of a single parent struggling to pay petrol bills.

At least it’s customary to offset this potential bias by providing some hard data. For example, it might be indicated that single parent families made up only 13% of all families in Mernda at the 2011 Census, less than the average for Victoria. In this case, though, the ABC doesn’t provide any data. The two families aren’t there just for “colour”; they’re the entire story!

That’s why it matters that the two families aren’t even vaguely comparable. The Mernda household comprises single mum Kristie Ferraro and her four boys aged between three and twelve, Dylan, Diesel, Ryder and Tripp. She pays $355 in rent per week for a four-bedroom house:

Money is tight. They cut off the water last week because of a late bill.

The Southbank household is made up of Rodney McMurtrie, a commercial airline pilot, and Melanie McMurtrie, a stay-at-home mum caring for their five-year-old daughter, Chloe. The McMurtries own their 3-bedroom apartment which, we’re told, has “$1-million-plus views”. They still own their previous house in Mernda and have the wherewithal to buy “the biggest place we could afford in the location we wanted to live in.”

The upshot is the outer suburban Ferraros get high petrol costs, social isolation, poor public transport, inadequate services, a small backyard, and don’t even get a bush setting. But it’s the family’s best option:

Kristie doesn’t want to move. She likes her house. Four growing boys in a three-bedroom apartment in South Morang wasn’t sustainable.

The city-centre McMurtries, on the other hand, get a wonderful view, great accessibility, good schools, and can avoid driving. They’d ideally like more space (a fourth bedroom) but are happy with their decision.

The only downside of city living with a child, says Rodney, is that when you want the grandparents to babysit, someone has to do an hour round trip in the car.

So what we get here is life in Southbank from the perspective of a relatively well-heeled nuclear family, compared with life in Mernda from the perspective of a single parent family in precarious financial circumstances. That doesn’t seem like a sensible way to unpick the merits of city life versus life on the fringe. Nor does it seem a valid basis for the big claim the McMurtries and the Ferreros constitute “a tale of two Melbournes”.

Mernda doesn’t have as many well-heeled residents as Southbank, but it isn’t dominated by households in financial difficulty. Many Mernda residents are second and third-time home owners. While weekly household incomes at the Census were higher in Southbank than Mernda ($1,837 vs $1,597), the latter nevertheless reported an appreciably higher average household income than the entire Melbourne urban area ($1,597 vs $1,337).

The McMurties clearly prefer Southbank to Mernda, but life for households like them – and those with average household incomes – would undoubtedly be a lot easier in Mernda than it is for the Ferreros e.g. the cost of petrol and the failings of public transport would be less of an issue. I think ABC news would’ve been better advised to compare the McMurtries life before and after they shifted from Mernda to Southbank.

The city “versus” sprawl set-up is in any event questionable in the case of the Ferreros. It’s not a matter of competing options; they can’t realistically live in the city centre or even close to it. Any city centre or inner city apartment going for an affordable rent would be way too small for one adult and four children.

The point I’m making is about the way the media handles issues, rather than the relative merits of life in the city and life on the fringe. It’s relevant to note though that, while sprawl was the headline city planning issue for more than half a century, its salience has faded over recent decades as the share of households going to the fringe declined (see Is sprawl still the number one bogeyman?).